“The Megile of Itzik Manger” and the National Yiddish Theatre seem like a perfect partnership: love and marriage, horse and carriage, Purim shpiel and the Folksbiene.
Manger is considered one of the most important Yiddish poets and playwrights, and “The Megile” is one of several plays in which he put his own stamp on a biblical story. It was reworked as a musical by, among others, award-winning composer Dov Seltzer, a totem of Israeli creativity.
The play has had several successful productions, including a lengthy run in Israel and a brief one on Broadway. This interpretation, however, could better serve its extremely enthusiastic and talented cast.
In a couple of Russian-style numbers, the dancers wear fur caps, a tip-of-the, well, hat, to the theater’s large émigré audience. But this is hardly true to the show’s Persian locale. And director Motl Didner’s use of a circus theme seems puzzling. Employing a ring master (Shane Baker) as narrator works but, after an opening scene set in a 1937 Polish circus, the theme isn’t carried through in a meaningful way.
The news about Yiddish literature these days is mostly about translation — whether from Yiddish (as with Moyshe Kulbak’s “Zelmenyaner,” which I recently reviewed), or, as seems to be increasingly the case, into Yiddish.
But there are plenty of writers out there producing work in Yiddish, plain and simple. A representative sample can be found in the new issue of Afn Shvel, a Yiddish magazine whose latest issue is dedicated to new Yiddish writing.
Published by the League for Yiddish and edited by Sheva Zucker, the latest double issue of Afn Shvel (or “On the Threshold”), departs from the usual magazine format to look more like a quarterly literary journal.
Translating classic children’s books into Yiddish is becoming a trend these days. First there was “The Hobbit,” which was recently translated by retired computer programmer Barry Goldstein. Now there’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which has been rendered into Yiddish by Israeli children’s author Adina Bar-El.
Bar-El, 66, who lives on Moshav Nir Yisrael, is the author of some 19 books for children and teenagers (including such titles as “Miss Contrary” and “The Strongest Boy in Kindergarten”), as well as poetry and books for adults. She is also a scholar of Jewish children’s literature and journalism in Poland between the two World Wars, and received her doctorate in the field from Hebrew University.
Given the emphasis on wordplay in “Alice in Wonderland,” translation was no easy task. In an English introduction to the volume, Bar-El explains some of her techniques:
Joseph Friedenson, the founder and long-time editor of the Agudath Israel organ Dos Yiddishe Vort, passed away February 23 at his home in Manhattan, the Forverts reported. Friedenson, a survivor of the Holocaust, founded the monthly Yiddish journal in the Feldafing and Landesberg displaced persons camps in Germany, and edited it continually in New York since 1953.
Friedenson was born in Lodz in 1922. His father, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, was one of the leaders of the Beis Yaakov school movement in Poland. After the outbreak of World War II the family fled to Warsaw where they were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. There Friedenson married his wife, Gittel Leah Zilberman, who passed away in 2006. They both survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Szydlowiec Ghetto, the Starachowice labor camp and Auschwitz, and were reunited a few months after the end of the war.
In a 2007 profile of Friedenson for the Forward, Toby Appleton Perl described him as “an avid newspaperman” who read multiple publications daily in several languages. During its heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, Dos Yiddishe Vort boasted a readership of up to 8,000 people and published many highly regarded Yiddish writers, including Friedenson himself.
Watch Forverts editor Boris Sandler interview Joseph Friedenson in 2011:
The dispute over the papers of the late Yiddish writer Chaim Grade has been settled in favor of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the National Library of Israel, according to a recent press release. The two organizations have also gained control over copyright to Grade’s published work.
Grade was one of the most highly regarded postwar Yiddish writers. His oeuvre includes novels such as “The Yeshiva“ and “The Agunah,” as well as the novelistic memoir “My Mother’s Sabbath Days.” He was also the author much untranslated poetry and several novels that were serialized in the Yiddish press but have never appeared in book form.
The collection was recovered from the writer’s home by the Bronx Public Administrator after the death of Grade’s wife, Inna Hecker Grade, in 2010. It includes 40 boxes of letters, photographs and manuscripts, as well as Grade’s 20,000-volume library.
Earlier, Hannah S. Pressman wrote about the idea behind “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture” and when she first began to study Yiddish. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Zi kholmt — she dreams.
In Irena Klepfisz’s remarkable poem, “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn / A few words in the mother tongue,” the speaker presents different female identities in the form of a Yiddish vocabulary list. The poem toggles seamlessly between Yiddish and English, but gradually, the bilingualism of the middle stanzas gives way to a series of incantations solely in the mame-loshn of Yiddish.
Here is Klepfisz’s haunting final refrain:
She dreams / she dreams / she dreams. What strikes me about these verses? The insistent female pronoun, zi; the fact that the poem has shifted irrevocably into Yiddish; the notion that a poem all about language ends with a verb not indicating speaking or singing, but rather, dreaming.
Earlier this week, Hannah S. Pressman wrote about when she first began to study Yiddish. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
The three of us waited expectantly and somewhat nervously in the seminar room, wondering why we had been summoned by our professor. Nu, what was going on — why the special meeting?
I glanced over at my classmates. Shiri Goren had grown up in Hod Hasharon, Israel, studied at Tel Aviv University, and went on to a successful career as an editor for IDF Radio and television news. Like me, she was now pursuing doctoral work in Hebrew literature. Lara Rabinovitch grew up in Toronto and attended McGill University. She was enrolled jointly in Jewish Studies and history, and had an active side career as a food writer. I hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and had studied English and Religious Studies at UVA.
Three students from very different places, meeting weekly to debate history’s impact on Yiddish cultural expression. During our exploration of “Yiddishism in the 20th Century” in the spring of 2005, we learned about the rise of Yiddish literature, the Yiddish press, spelling reform (quite a contentious subject!), and the language’s role in Israel, America and Cold War politics.
Hannah S. Pressman is the co-editor, with Lara Rabinovitch and Shiri Goren, of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture.” She is the editor of stroumjewishstudies.org and affiliate faculty for the University of Washington’s Stroum Jewish Studies Program. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
When I first began studying Yiddish, I felt like I was remembering something I already knew.
It was a lovely sensation, this feeling at home in a language I was still acquiring. There I was, barely a few weeks into my first summer at YIVO Institute’s Uriel Weinreich Program, and I was able to read, write, and speak Yiddish — not perfectly, but happily. Relishing my newfound abilities, I absorbed vocabulary lists, salutations and songs, delighted to be able to talk about the weather or kvetch (complain) about an injury in Yiddish.
Granted, I’ve always had somewhat of a knack for learning languages. Grammar and syntax just fall into place for me. I also undertook my Yiddish studies armed with fluency in Hebrew, a definite advantage when it came to the alphabet and loshn-koydesh (holy tongue) components of Yiddish.
Klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals has experience scoring documentary and feature films. But earlier this year she faced an unusual challenge when she was approached by the Washington Jewish Music Festival to score a 1918 feature-length silent film called “The Yellow Ticket.”
Unlike other scoring jobs, where her focus was mainly on heightening viewers’ experience of onscreen action, this commission would also involve “creating a bridge to another time,” as she put it. Thanks to a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network, audiences at the New York Jewish Film Festival will have a chance to cross that bridge when Svigals and Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner perform the score live at a screening of “The Yellow Ticket” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on January 10. A subsequent tour will travel to Vancouver, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia and Houston.
“The Yellow Ticket,” set in Poland and Czarist Russia, portrays a young Jewish woman named Lea (played by Polish actress Pola Negri, Hollywood’s first European silent film star) as she overcomes adversity to succeed at the university in Saint Petersburg. It is a story of secret identities and the redeeming power of love. For 1918 audiences, the meaning and implications of possessing a “yellow ticket” — a permit held by undesirables like prostitutes and Jews, allowing them to reside in St. Petersburg — would be clear. Now, it is Svigals’ remit to convey through her music the shame and hardship associated with such a document, as well as the risks Lea takes in assuming a false identity in order to pursue her studies.
Earlier, Harry Brod wrote about a couple of sayings with which he disagrees and why he always has a valid passport. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I’ve been told that students in my college courses sometimes have trouble following what I’m saying because I speak backwards.
The problem is the order in which I put words in a sentence. Having grown up in a Yiddish and German speaking household, I seem to think in the structure of those languages even when I’m speaking English. Maybe if I looked like Yoda they’d get into it, but as a New York Jew in Iowa, I’m just strange.
I think of Cynthia Ozick, who has said that she writes Yiddish sentences in English. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a lecture on Ozick’s wonderful paired short story and novella “The Shawl” and “Rosa.” I made this point by reading a few words from one of the first sentences in “Rosa”: “Her meals she had elsewhere.” That, I pointed out, is not standard English prose. In English one would normally say “She had her meals elsewhere.” Standard Yiddish sentence construction is what it is.
“To me, he is the leading Yiddish poet, the epitome of Yiddish literature in the 20th century,” Mikhail Iossel said of Sutzkever. Iossel, a Soviet émigré and associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, is the founder and director of the literary, creative writing and historical workshops that have taken place in St. Petersburg, Montreal, Nairobi and Vilnius. The Sutzkever Prize is associated with the SLS Lithuania program for summer 2013.
The new prize is being added to a lineup of already existing ones that are given through the SLS Unified Literary Contest, awarding winners with tuition, stipends and publication assurances. The winner of the Sutzkever Prize will receive tuition to SLS Lithuania plus $500 toward travel expenses. In addition, the winning entry will be translated into Lithuanian, and read at a celebration in Vilnius on the centennial, on July 15, 2013. The deadline for submissions is February 28, 2013.
The Forverts’s Rukhl Schaechter once heard a Yiddish professor complain that his American students knew nothing about Stalin’s execution of 13 Soviet Jews, which took place in August 1952. Even more discouraging, he added, was their “complete lack of interest” in the Yiddish culture that once thrived in the Former Soviet Union.
Two days before the premiere of “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” Schaechter talked to author Nathan Englander about this phenomenon and what inspired him, a self-proclaimed Yankee from Long Island, to write about it.
Rukhl Schaechter: What inspired you to write about Stalin’s execution of Soviet Yiddish writers?
Nathan Englander: I guess it’s because I read a lot, and I believe in imagined worlds. I learned about that period when I was in Israel, in my junior year abroad at Hebrew University, and the Iron Curtain was about to fall. My teacher, Edith Frankel, who was a Russian studies expert, mentioned it as an aside. I thought it was strange that no one talked about it, and I felt that these writers deserved a story about them. So I waited a few years. It was shocking to me that this nefarious event occurred and because of it, a whole world was destroyed, and yet no one wrote about it. When I began working on the story myself, I discovered there was almost no information, just an entry here and there in the Encyclopedia Judaica.
When my parents landed in New York in 1947 they were assigned a case worker. I’m not sure who did the assigning, but I remember my father saying how puzzled he was. “Case” was German for cheese, and he didn’t understand why he needed a cheese worker.
My parents didn’t tell many stories about their early lives, about crossing the border from Austria into Switzerland after the Anschluss or how they got to the goldene medina. Perhaps I didn’t ask the right questions.
But that particular anecdote stayed with me, because it was about their life at the precipice. They were starting a new life in a new land with a new language, one briefly filled with optimism and faith that life could and would be better.
Perhaps that is why I am such a fan of the new National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene production of “The Golden Land,” a joyous celebration of the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant experience.
Radio personality Isaiah Sheffer died today in New York at age 76. Sheffer was co-founder and artistic director of the performing art center Symphony Space on the upper west side of Manhattan, and was known nationally as the long time host of the public radio series “Selected Shorts,” which began in 1985. Sheffer started Symphony Space in 1978 with the conductor Alan Miller, and turned a run down theater into one of the most active cultural centers in New York. Sheffer stepped down from the post in 2009.
Isaiah Sheffer was born in the Bronx and was a child actor in the Yiddish theater. He had a lifelong connection to both Yiddish and English radio. His uncle was the noted actor and Yiddish radio personality Zvi Scooler. Starting as a young man in the 1960s, Sheffer’s sonorous voice could be heard on radio station WEVD, the station of the Jewish Daily Forward, where he was the English language host and newscaster. Sheffer was also the author of numerous plays and musicals including “Yiddle with a Fiddle,” “The Rise of David Levinsky” and “Dreamers and Demons: The Three Worlds of Isaac Bashevis Singer.”
Hillel Zeitlin (1871-1942), the leading neo-Hasidic thinker in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, was for Hebrew and Yiddish-reading Jews what Martin Buber was for their more westernized German-reading brethren: the person who rendered the passionate religious life of Hasidism accessible to non-Orthodox Jews. A prolific writer and well-known lecturer, teacher and journalist, Zeitlin was one of the best-known martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto. This Sunday, September 15, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, marks the 70th anniversary of his death.
Zeitlin, who was born in 1871, was already frail and elderly by the time the Ghetto was established because he and his family shared the widespread starvation and illnesses of Warsaw’s Jews. One of his sons died of typhus in the ghetto, and his remains are in one of the last graves in Warsaw’s huge Jewish cemetery. (Another son, the well-known poet Aaron Zeitlin, was on a lecture tour in the U.S. when the war broke out in 1939, and thus was saved.)
When Zeitlin’s block was called forth to the notorious Umschlagplatz (assembly-point for the forced march to Treblinka), Zeitlin came out wearing tallit and tefillin, a statement of defiance to the Nazis, who showed particular cruelty toward Jews dressed for prayer. He also carried a copy of the Zohar, the text sacred to Jewish mystics, in his hand. He joined the march in this way, but, according to the one survivor of the march, died along the road.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Over the years, I’ve attended lots of symposia but never one that began with the ringing of chimes and concluded with a most hearty and prolonged round of applause. These two sounds, along with the sight of presenters swaying to the beat of “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” or singing the praises of the “Cohen on the Radio” vaudeville sketches with their catch-all phrase, “Radio, Shmadio,” were in full throttle at last week’s Library of Congress salute to Henry Sapoznik and the donation of his collection of Yiddish radio memorabilia.
Now a part of the American Folklife Center where, one hopes, it will receive a new lease on life, this treasure trove of auditory materials underscores the vibrancy of American Jewish life at the grass roots. Whether poking fun at “Sam the man who made the pants too long,” or rendering the familiar Campbell Soup jingle auf yidish, as in “Campbell Soup iz – um um – immer gut,” or introducing the very latest Hebrew folksongs, Yiddish radio informed, entertained and sustained audiences of the interwar years.
Fifty years later, Yiddish radio had the same effect on the nearly 200 people in attendance at this symposium. It held us in its static-y embrace. At many a conference, it’s customary to find more participants holding impromptu conversations in the hallway than paying attention to the proceedings.
Yesterday, Steve Stern wrote about his decision to teach creative writing in Vilnius. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square, above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews.
Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.
Steve Stern’s most recent book, “The Book of Mischief,” is now available. His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I had fun in Vilnius, despite my low tolerance for fun. Not to mention that fun in Vilnius seemed like a betrayal of everything sacred. So what was I doing in Lithuania? A good question, and having traveled all the way to that small Eastern European nation to teach English-speaking students the same stuff (creative writing) I routinely taught at home, I asked my class at our first meeting, “What the hell are we doing in Lithuania?” But the truth was that the question was disingenuous. I knew perfectly well why I’d come. When first invited to teach there in the Summer Literary Seminars, I instantly declined. I don’t travel well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth — that was my default reply.
Then I remembered that I am a lover of Yiddishkeit. What reputation I have is as a writer inspired by Yiddish culture and folklore, and old Vilna once boasted the mother lode of that culture before it was utterly erased. So I complained to everyone I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithuania and blown it. Eventually I received another email from the program, saying, “We hear by the grapevine you might be having second thoughts.” I considered my bluff called.
Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree
Nearly 30 years ago, when musician and musicologist Henry Sapoznik first stumbled across a cache of aluminum transcription disks of Yiddish radio shows from interwar America, little did he suspect that they would find a home at the Library of Congress.
Abandoned in an attic, deposited in a dumpster, the stuff of rummage and tag sales, these acoustic artifacts, which ranged from “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” to Stuhmer’s “Pumpernickel Program,” were destined to fade away entirely had not Sapoznik recognized their value and saved them, often just in the nick of time.
But then, this stalwart champion of American Jewry’s vernacular culture did even more than that. Working together with the award-winning radio producer Dave Isay and the celebrated sound preservationist Andy Lanset, he made sure, for one thing, to preserve this material.
Allan Lewis Rickman likes to say that the best audiences for “The Essence: A Yiddish Theatre Dim Sum” are gentile college students — a demographic that seemed (shockingly!) underrepresented at the show’s opening NYC Fringe Festival performance at the Robert Moss Theater on August 14. More than a few people in this crowd murmured recognition of familiar tunes and might have kept right on laughing at jokes in Yiddish even if Matt Temkin’s excellent English supertitles had malfunctioned.
When a language is said to be dying, it’s always gratifying to see so many of its champions in one place — and yet, though I’m not a college student, I wonder whether, as a theater fan who doesn’t know a lick of Yiddish, I’m closer to the target audience Rickman and co-creators Yelena Shmulenson-Rickman and Steve Sterner envisioned for the piece. What they’ve created is a brisk introduction to Yiddish theater in the vein of “Schoolhouse Rock”: You’re meant to be so swept up in the fun that you don’t realize you’re learning all about a subject that, like grammar or math, some folks (incorrectly) imagine to be dull.
The show hums along at a cheerful clip, with Shmulenson-Rickman and Sterner taking turns at the piano as all three performers cycle through various roles in memorable snippets from Yiddish plays and musicals. Between scenes, they address the audience as chirpy, wide-eyed versions of themselves, telling the story of Yiddish theater worldwide and posing surprisingly direct questions like, “Is theater better if it’s in Yiddish?” These narrative interludes are wisely kept brief and accessible even to those with no Jewish background or prior knowledge of Yiddish culture: At one point, for example, Shmulenson-Rickman pauses to give a succinct definition of the word “shtetl.”